(Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of long-form ‘essays’ by OPE writers. They aren’t news stories – they’re opinion pieces written in essay format. Thus, they reflect the author’s views. Enjoy!)
The problems of modern capitalist society are evident to any observer regardless of political leanings. Economic crises punctuate the dream-world of the bourgeoisie with a regularity only matched by the receding of the tides. Underneath this superficial crisis lies a more hidden permanent crises, an interdependent matrix consisting of soaring relative inequality, increasing unemployment, environmental degradation, the collapse of welfare provisions, and the wrenching apart of society into violent interstate or internal conflict.
At the most extreme, Joseph Schumpeter’s principle of creative destruction (that is to say, the idea that crises have in purely economic terms a positive component in that they enable the replacement of the old with the new) is actualized in the degraded urban landscapes of Detroit and Flint, the bitter fruits of capital. It is indeed something of a misnomer to characterize this phenomenon as a crisis of capitalism. That would be to imply that crisis is an alien phenomenon external to capitalism. It would be more accurate to say that the crisis is capitalism, insofar as crisis is the natural condition of capitalist society.
Capitalist society can be characterized by two organizing principles: that of wage-labor in organization and privatization in ownership. The function of the business owner/capitalist is to maximize profit, by leveraging their ownership of the means of production through using labor to create a given commodity.
The problems listed above are inherent to the nature of capitalist society, either through the need to efficiently create profits, (as is the case with environmental degradation, and the reduction of welfare) or through the wage-labor system. (Since it is impossible to eliminate relative inequality when a worker labors solely to create profit for the capitalist, and only receives a small portion of that profit in the form of wages.) A political solution to the above problems must start with the recognition that such problems are an inherent characteristic of capitalist society, and not an accidental and therefore avoidable phenomenon.
Even assuming that such problems are avoidable, there remains more fundamental problems with capitalist society. The business owner effectively exercises a dictatorship over the means of production, an alienating form of organization that would seem to be totally incompatible with an ostensibly democratic society. More prosaically, it is questionable that liberal democracy can be characterized as particularly democratic, in that the people exercise only a limited and indirect influence over the state through their representatives, who on the other hand can be easily bought off by the owners of capital.
For example if we examine the machinery of the Democratic Party, it is quite clear that real power rests with a relatively small group of people – namely a group of Wall Street financiers who provide funds in untold millions to virtually every prospective Democratic candidate and union bureaucrat. The fact that it is considered unusual that Bernie Sanders (in stark contrast to his opponent Hillary Clinton) has pledged to not accept such corporate sponsorship should tell us enough about the state of “democracy” in the 21st century. The oligarchy of “liberal democracy” is fundamentally incompatible with the principles of democracy since the very form of representative democracy is in fact a mechanism for the disempowerment of the working class and the preservation of the political power of the capitalist class.
From such an analysis, it is evident that the social liberal view – the view ostensibly held today by the Democratic Party establishment, of which Hillary Clinton is at the forefront – is inadequate to the problem since a simple extension of rights and privileges cannot be a solution, no matter how much they may ameliorate the capitalist condition. Even supposing Clinton would be the most ardent of reformers, and assuming that such reforms could seriously alter systemic problems from within the confines of that system, the political power of capital would remain preserved. The work of counterrevolution thus becomes a simple matter: every Roosevelt and Attlee is followed by a Reagan and Thatcher.
A genuine solution would require the abolishment of the two organizing principles of capitalism, wage-labor and private ownership, and their replacement with the two new socialist principles: worker control and public ownership – worker control meaning workers exercising democratic control over enterprises and the economy as a whole, as well as politically, through the establishment of workers’ councils which would serve as the basic organizational unit of a new society. (Modern producer cooperatives perform a role analogous to this within capitalist society.)
The public ownership would mean the transformation and planning of the economy for social needs instead of for private accumulation. Such a suggestion is doubtless controversial, with the examples of the degenerated Stalinist societies of the Soviet Union and China remaining as spectral warnings of inefficiency. Yet there is no reason that a model in which (in contradistinction to the Stalinist model) production is forced to operate according to consumer demand by means of the aforementioned democratic mechanisms, and in which computers and decentralized decision making could act as a check on supply and corruption, would not prove to be as efficient as the current capitalist system.
To those who defend the “efficiency” and “rationality” of capitalism, it may be noted it is the only system in history in which producing too much of something useful is enough to cause an economic catastrophe. Even an economic system which is only as efficient as the capitalist model would still be preferable on the grounds of increased democratization and decreased alienation.
If this would be the object of a socialist movement, then the question remains what the means are of achieving it. Bernie Sanders supports something like the above analysis, but is of the opinion that socialism can be introduced by means of gradual reforms. Additionally, he seems to believe that his movement can capture the Democratic Party from its corporate controllers and transform it into an instrument of genuine social reform. Such an effort is commendable at the very least, but from an analysis of similar attempts, it seems likely that Sanders is mistaken on both points. Sanders’ attempt to capture the Democratic Party is unusual in that he has a following that is rather large compared with previous attempts, (for example, those of the Populist Party or the Democratic Socialists of America) but the Democratic Party is still ultimately beholden to the business class that Sanders demands a political revolution against.
This contradictory position makes it rather doubtful he can affect any thoroughgoing transformation of the party regardless if he ultimately wins the Democratic nomination, which the Democratic establishments seems determined to prevent at any cost. The Democratic Party is essentially an instrument of the capitalist class, even a president as “socialist” as FDR in reality only enacted reforms in order to stave off imminent worker unrest. Every other attempt to turn the Democrats towards social reform has come to grief, and it is doubtful whether even Sanders can be the exception.
The working class, the 99 percent of society that labor for a wage and owns no means of production, is the only class for whom socialism is desirable. It is unlikely, to say the least, that courting capitalists to their own dethronement is a practicable strategy, and therefore the only realistic strategy to the establishment of a socialist society is the creation of a workers’ party, a party representing the interests of the working class on a mass basis politically, and working economically through unions.
Such a party would press in the short-term for reforms with a view towards socialist revolution. (The campaign for the $15 minimum wage is a prime example of such a reform.) In this context, Sanders is significant primarily insofar as his movement represents a workers’ party in embryo. Thus, even though it is likely Sanders will not succeed at the nomination or at least at turning the Democrats into a workers’ party, it is necessary to work with Sanders and his supporters to labor at building a workers’ party, since that is where the mass of politically conscious workers are.
Supposing, however, that Sanders does manage to turn the Democrats into a workers’ party, the question then remains how he intends to build socialism. The strategy Sanders is pursuing, what has historically been called social democracy, has succeeded in the short-term. After World War II, the British Labour Party, amongst almost every other European workers’ party, built a welfare state in the United Kingdom. The problem emerges, however, in that reforms which place within the context of a capitalist system, are ultimately dependent on the will of the capitalist class.
Social Democratic parties have thus run into extreme difficulties in attempting to engineer a socialist transformation. In the UK, after years of economic problems and capitalist resistance, the Labour Party simply abandoned socialism and contented itself with the role of a loyal opposition, a pattern followed by virtually all of the European social democrats. Even the ostensibly more hardline Italian Eurocommunists fell into the same trap, and now reside in the same party as their erstwhile Christian Democratic opponents. (A party, it might be added, modeled on the US Democratic Party.)
In Chile, Salvador Allende of the Socialist Party won elections in 1970 with a plurality, but not a majority, of votes. Besides the economic and political destabilization of the US, Allende refused to use his position to build a socialist revolution; in so doing his regime continued to be based on the capitalist class that was so hostile to him rather than one based on the workers. As a result, it was a simple matter for the capitalists to overthrow him in 1973.
It is difficult to see how a Sanders regime would remain any different, in either stalling at the attempt to a socialist transformation and the ultimate abandonment of socialist principles, (as we have most recently seen with SYRIZA in Greece) or vacillation at the revolutionary moment resulting in the collapse of the regime. It is clear that a socialist society can only be built by a regime rooted in the working class itself, in a workers’ democracy of the type described above. It cannot be achieved by piling reform upon reform within the capitalist state and thus preserving the political power of the capitalist class.
This necessitates a social revolution led by a militant party willing to build for such a transformation. Only a party willing to mobilize the working class in a militant fashion against capitalism and use it to build a socialist society can possibly succeed. Capitalist society is simply not willing to build a socialist society, and attempting to enlist their help in a reformist approach is akin to attempting to skin a tiger claw by claw. A workers’ party must ultimately be a revolutionary socialist party to succeed in its objectives, since reform is simply not a practicable strategy in the long-term.
Socialist Alternative, the only socialist party in the US to work independent of the Democrats to build a workers’ party, has demonstrated the success of this approach in recent years by electing Kshama Sawant as a representative on the Seattle City Council in 2013 and then leveraging this position to enact the first $15 minimum wage in the country, among many other reforms. The reelection of Sawant in 2015 by a margin of 12 percent demonstrates the degree to which Socialist Alternative’s approach succeeded in mobilizing the working class, as has the organization’s explosive growth to a projected 2,000+ members in recent years.
Through presenting concrete demands with a view towards a socialist transformation and through militant opposition to the capitalist system, plus a willingness to work with other worker and socialist movements such as Bernie Sanders,’ Socialist Alternative has been the most successful at creating the nucleus for a workers’ party in the United States. It is quite evident to myself that Socialist Alternative is the organization that has taken the most concrete steps towards the realization of a workers’ party and socialism in the United States, and as such it is worth the support of any progressive.
Featured graphic of Kshama Sawant courtesy of Lauren Walker via Truthout.